Schools block access to ‘rate my teacher’ website

Shelby County school officials are standing by a decision to restrict access to certain websites on school computers, despite claims that the move violates students’ freedom of speech.

The Shelby County Board of Education used computer software to block access to www.ratemyteachers.com, a website designed to allow students to rate the perfomance of their middle and high school teachers.

Superintendent Evan Major said Internet access provided by the board of education is intended solely for instructional use and is not for recreational &uot;surfing&uot; or visiting chat rooms.

Major said the site was restricted because it did not qualify as an instructional site.

&uot;We’re not trying to restrict anyone’s freedom of speech,&uot; Major said. &uot;School computers are for instructional use and that’s the premise of this issue.&uot;

Tim Davis, who owns and operates the website from Bakersfield, Calif., said he understands why school officials would want students to focus on their studies because he and his wife are both teachers.

But Davis argues that students should have access to the site from school computers outside of class time.

&uot;During their free time, they should be able to go to our site,&uot; he said.

Freedom of speech is an issue if the site is restricted during those times, Davis said, especially for those students who do not have Internet access at home.

Cindy Warner, spokesman for Shelby County schools, said there are no circumstances where students are allowed to use any of the system’s 5,200 Internet-ready computers for personal use, even outside of class.

She suggested students without home access go to the public library, but said students may encounter the same filtering software there as well.

Warner said the school system has the right to restrict Internet use because, &uot;These are our computers; it’s our Internet access.&uot;

She compared the school board’s restrictions to companies who allow their employees to use the Internet only for &uot;legitimate business purposes.&uot;

But founders of the website say the situation is different because public funding is involved, school computers are purchased from taxpayer money.

The school board originally banned the site six months ago, Warner said, after Oak Mountain High School principal Randy Fuller complained that students were accessing RateMyTeachers.com during what was supposed to be instructional time.

The school system recently installed new software to restrict any sites deemed &uot;harmful&uot; and &uot;dangerous&uot; or those that are considered to be chat rooms or message boards, Warner said.

RateMyTeachers.com is now blocked by the national filtering software, although it was previously targeted specifically by the school board.

&uot;Is this a school or a dictatorship? Banning the website won’t make it not true,&uot; according to a recent post on the website rating Fuller. &uot;Maybe everyone should consider this constructive criticism and try to improve.&uot;

Anyone who accesses the site may post an anonymous rating on any teacher, which includes a score in three categories: Easiness, Helpfulness and Clarity.

Teachers are given an overall quality rating based on the last two categories, which determines whether they have a &uot;smily face&uot; next to their name. Users may also post comments.

Davis said between 60 and 65 percent of the posts are positive.

The site has more than 2.3 million ratings, he said, receiving about 10 million hits per month.

&uot;Great plans for students &045; now if the students would just try to be mature and pay attention. You have our best interests at heart,&uot; one user said of an Oak Mountain teacher.

But they are not all so encouraging.

&uot;I think this is the worst teacher in OMHS,&uot; another post reads. &uot;I think she should be laid off as soon as possible. She is sarcastic, mean and unhelpful. Pretty much all of OMHS despises her even the people not in her class.&uot;

Davis said he started the site to encourage &uot;accountability&uot; in education.

&uot;Being in the education field I know that teachers are evaluated once or twice a year,&uot; Davis said. &uot;But no one knows what goes on the rest of the year except the students.&uot;

School officials insist they do not want to prevent students from accessing the site, provided they do so on their own time, from their own computers.

Students at Shelby County Schools are only allowed Internet access if their parents have signed a permission form, Warner said.

&uot;I think most of the parents support this,&uot; she said. &uot;I haven’t had one single parent complain about this.&uot;